Being out of breath – that is something all of us have experienced on our bikes. You can even get out of breath on the descents if you’re really pushing it! But have you ever thought past simply “I’m breathing hard” or “I’m not breathing hard?” In cycling, we constantly think about how our legs feel, if our heart rate is too high or too low, and how many watts we are putting out. Translation: muscloskeletal system, cardiac system, etc. Training our respiratory system and how we are breathing is often one overlooked and it is one of the most important elements to consider when we are looking at our body holistically as an athlete.
If you are/were a musician or a yogi, you might have spent some time learning how to breathe. I played flute growing up, but we were never taught proper breathing. It wasn’t until I took a singing lesson that I learned even more about how to breathe properly.
Here’s the Cliff’s notes version of the anatomy of the muscles of the respiratory system:
We have our intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs), the diaphragm (flat shaped, flexible muscle that separates our lungs from our the peritoneum (sack) holding our organs. Our accessory respiratory muscles are ones in our neck like the sternocleidomastoid and scalenes. Even more accessory are our traps, chest, and some of our upper back.
What muscle should we be using the most? The diaphragm.
A lot of times when we are fatigued, we default to short, shallow breaths and use our shoulders, neck, and accessory muscles to help. Many of us don’t use anywhere close to our full lung capacity.
The Youngins Know What to Do
Watch babies and puppies breathe. You can see their whole belly and sides of their body puff out for every breath. We tend to lose respiratory coordination and flexibility from stress, sitting, and tight muscles.
To get better and to have it translate to the bike, we just have to practice in real life. You can do this in bed, laying on the ground, or standing up. A lot of people recommend starting this exercise laying on your back on ground with a town under your knees. It’s easier if for starters if you inhale with your nose instead of your mouth, but later you’ll want to practice with your mouth because that’s how we breathe on the bike.
How to Do It
- Start by laying on your back with a rolled up towel under your knees. You can also put your legs up the wall. Alternatively, you can sit up straight in a chair. Put your hands on your belly so you can feel it move. Start to focus on your breathing. Where is it coming from? Upper rib cage? Lower rib cage? Your Belly?
- Relax. Inhale gently through your nose and feel your diaphragm move down and your belly expand out. Feel the sides of your ribs expand and maybe even the ribs in your back expand. Visualize your breath filling and stretching the length your core out all the way down to the base of your pelvis/pelvic floor. The diaphragm actually pushes down on your organs making room for your your lungs which is why the belly pushes out. Think of every muscle relaxing and melting like an ice cube on a sunny day.
- Exhale and feel your diaphragm come back up. Feel your core push your navel to your spine.
- When you get comfortable with this, you can try it breathing through your mouth. If you feel your shoulders creeping up or a lot of tension in your neck, try to again focus on the diaphragm. If you’ve never done this, it could take some reprogramming. Be patient.
Take it to the Bike
- Our breath on the bike is a huge part of performance. When you inhale, you bring oxygenated blood to your exercising muscles and brain. When you exhale, you breathe off CO2 and byproducts (and heat) from the activity.
- It’s harder to take big full breaths on the bike. Think of your diaphragm moving down and your sides, back, and belly pushing out. When you inhale, imagine oxygen flowing into your muscles and the muscles putting out more power. When you exhale, visualize all the pain in your muscles coming out with it.